Kimberly Chapman: Where Tragedy and Elegance Converge
Your head tilts with curiosity when you first gaze at the strange porcelain objects. At once familiar and foreign, they evoke a set of legs, or perhaps a swaddled infant. Damaged and deformed, their vulnerability is undeniable. Then the name, Pearly Whites, gives it away. These are teeth—sort of.
Clearly modeled from human teeth, but at least fifty times as large, the curving roots and crowns are delicately wrapped in cloth that’s been frozen in white porcelain. They could be a diaper or bandage or perhaps a sanitary napkin. You lean in.
The compelling molars are part of Kimberly Chapman’s newest collection 86 Reasons. They represent the silent victims of Henry Cotton, a psychiatrist who routinely performed surgeries on his patients against their will in the early twentieth century, starting with the removal of their teeth. He pulled some 11,000 of them for the treatment of mental illness during his grisly career, which spanned more than twenty years. Cotton was fictionalized in the 2014 Cinemax drama The Knick. Even though the real Dr. Cotton died in 1933, you instinctively run your tongue over your own most primal tools.
Such is the layered complexity of each component in this devastating collection.
Although its subjects harken from centuries gone by, the exhibition remains relevant and deeply intimate before its chilling namesake. 86 Reasons references a list of reasons for admission compiled from admitting documentation from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum for the Insane from 1864 to 1889. Entries include everything from “Snuff eating for two years” and “Exposure in Army” to “Epileptic fits” and “Excessive sexual abuse.”
In her studio, Chapman considers the list. “Whether these were the reasons why they were admitted or what predisposed them to being admitted—we don’t really know,” she says, then references some particulars. “They say masturbation and menstruation in like sixteen different ways in here. How crazy is that? Look at some of these … You or I probably fit in at least fifteen of them.” No doubt, considering “novel reading,” “politics,” and “overaction of the mind” pepper the list.
As the content informing Chapman’s work unfurls, her sculptures transform before the viewer’s eyes. Case in point: a gentle hand offers oversized coins, but it is part of the sinister Somebody Has to Pay collection, which references the cost of admission to enter London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital in the 1600s in order to amuse one’s self by gaping at the tortured souls within—and help defray the institution’s operating costs.
Photographs of eerily familiar women populate another portion of the show. One struggles against a straitjacket as her hair obstructs her face. Another forlornly holds a crucifix. Yet another stares off at some unseen affront, her brow tightly knit. While they look nothing like the high-energy sculptor and artist, all of the women are Chapman. She stepped into the role of patient to illuminate the work of psychiatrist Hugh Welch Diamond, who believed photographing those with mental disorders was a form of treatment. He amassed a wide array of photos featuring asylum patients in the mid-1800s.
“He was a British doctor who decided he was going to take photos of women who came to asylums and base their diagnosis and treatment solely on facial features,” says Chapman. “He actually gave them props and things.”
Donning authentic period items on loan from Ursuline College’s extensive Historic Costume Study Collection, Chapman posed for a series of eight 8”×10” tintype photographs by Paul Lender, who used the same method employed by Diamond some 175 years ago. Friend Alenka Banco Glazen also captured an array of more candid digital images.
The costumes are a tether of sorts to Chapman’s previous professional endeavors, which for 25 years focused largely on marketing for corporations and colleges, including Ursuline. “It wasn’t until 2013,” she recalls, “that I decided I was going to retire and seek out this thing of trying to become an artist.” She enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), where she garnered multiple scholarships and awards before earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Ceramics, in 2017. Upon graduation, Chapman won CIA’s prestigious Agnes Gund Traveling Award. Since then, she’s enjoyed a host of solo and group exhibitions, with dates extending into the 2022 calendar. Her exhibition Shush was open in June and July at the Mansfield Art Center. 86 Reasons will make its solo debut on August 30 in Berea at the Fawick Art Gallery at Baldwin Wallace University.
While the collection was still under development at the time of this writing, among its offerings will be the trio of Championship Cup Trophies to Male Medical Misogyny. One of the entries recognizes Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz (1874-1955), who developed the lobotomy procedure, with The Moniz Cup For the Discovery of the Lobotomy Causing the Most Disconnects in the History of Mankind.
“It wasn’t that long ago that the lobotomy was finally taken off the shelf and people started to realize the lobotomy was more for the caretaker than for the patient because all it really did was basically make the patient quieter, stiller, and easier to take care of,” says Chapman.
The Women, however, epitomize the transformational nature of viewing Chapman’s work. At first blush, one of the three graceful Bird Ladies looks to be wrapped in a shawl or complicated gown, but it turns out to be a straightjacket. Further inspection reveals her nose and lips are doubled and her headdress is a bird she’s killed. The Gold Masked Women initially evoke a masquerade ball, but these masks obstruct the sight, speech, and humanity of the three straightjacketed women who are powerless to remove them.
“Why was I doing straitjacketed women?” poses Chapman. She then recalls the universal anxiety that characterized the pandemic shutdown, particularly worry over loved ones. “I was so devastated at the thought of the loss. I couldn’t make any work for the first three or four months. I thought my whole life was going to be gone. It makes me wonder if—since the straitjacketed women were the first—if that doesn’t have something to do with COVID because I felt mentally locked, physically locked. There wasn’t anything I could do. I did not leave my house.”
“All this hurt and this whole thing about not being able to move—immobility—is what a straitjacket is all about. I don’t want to make it up; it never occurred to me when I was doing it, but I can’t help but wonder.” Intentional or not, that the COVID ordeal would bend a sculptor’s creative impetus to the content of 86 Reasons feels wholly organic.
At every turn, the collection simultaneously conjures elegance and tragedy, owed in part to the primary medium of the show: white porcelain. The cloth components of each sculpture consist of bed sheets or paper towels dipped in liquid porcelain. After application, they often crack and appear distressed. The imperfect nature of her chosen materials, however, has become a feature of Chapman’s work. “I’ve finally been able to embrace cracks,” she says. “If I see a crack, I’ll either make it larger or purposeful, but I’ll never try and hide it.”
She continues: “For some reason, all this work ends up looking like it’s from an ancient time in history. I’m a modernist; I just want to come out and make some minimalist, modernist Henry Moore sculpture, but this is what comes out every time, something that appears to almost be medieval. And I don’t know why.”
The Fawick Art Gallery at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea will feature Chapman’s 86 Reasons in a solo exhibition August 30–September 24, Monday through Friday 2-5pm, and by appointment August 23-27. Reception September 10, 5-8pm.
Chapman’s Hush II will be the subject of a solo show at the Coburn Gallery at Ashland University in Ashland September 30–October 29. Reception October7, 4:30-6:30pm.
The Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens will feature 86 Reasons in a solo exhibition from May 13–June 30, 2022. Reception May 13, 5-8pm.
For more information, go to kimberlychapmansculptor.com and on Instagram @kimberlychapmansculptor.